DURING the floods last Monday, January 16, the impulse of those of us watching the harrowing events from afar was to try to make sense of what was happening as the disaster unfolded in status updates and photos uploaded in the web. Was it another Sendong event? Or if it was not, in what ways were it different?

Apparently, I was not the only one asking these questions. In the wee hours of the morning, even before the waters subsided, and the crisis deemed over, the researchers from Xavier University’s (XU) Engineering Resource Center released important data that provisionally answered some of these questions. There are rain gauges inside the XU campus that monitored the extraordinary rainfall that afternoon which continued well into the evening. They also mapped the flooded areas and identified evacuation centers.

The data they gathered and released after Sendong went a long way in making sense of the event five years ago. Together with Ateneo de Manila’s Manila Observatory, they are continuing with the much-needed process of using data to generate lessons from the event. It is efforts like these that the public should laud and make use of when the expected sources of information do not deliver.

During times of disaster, people need information so that they can take care of themselves and their families if they can. But they cannot act if important information on the weather, amount of rainfall, and water levels on the city’s rivers, are not accessible to them.

It was mainly this lack of information that caused the stranding of thousands of the city’s residents in schools, malls, and on perilous flooded streets. It is somewhat of a miracle, no doubt made by possible by the heroic rescue efforts undertaken by both official and unofficial actors, that the casualty toll was very minimal.

I am reprinting here my immediate thoughts on last Monday’s floods written after I read XU’s Engineering Resource Center’s report in the early morning hours of Tuesday:

Kudos to XU Engineering Resource Center for releasing their data very early. Here are some initial impressions on the scary event that we all endured yesterday.

Yesterday's flooding seems to be a case of too much rain too soon. Last night, 150 mm in a 10 hour period was recorded at the XU Weather Station, compared to Sendong's 50 mm. But what made Sendong destructive was the 180 mm of rains that fell in Bukidnon over a 24-hour period. We are lucky that the rampaging flood waters from the upper watersheds did not occur this time.

What will stick to the minds of Kagay-anons was the gridlock that hampered the mobility of people and important rescue efforts as flood waters rose. Students and the city residents were trapped in their schools, malls, and offices, many of them needing to spend the night there without provisions. There are harrowing stories of passengers being trapped in their vehicles as flood waters in the streets rose to alarming levels.

There are a lot of lessons to be culled here. When the trauma of Sendong was reawakened in those dangerous hours last night, information on the water levels in the city's rivers were not readily accessible to the public. Apparently that information is available when the City Mayor was photographed at the city command center looking at a screen detailing the condition of the city's tributaries. It would have gone a long way in assuring the residents of the city on edge if regular bulletins on the status of the rivers were also released.

Model forecasting should also be made use of in real time to make quick decisions regarding the suspension of work and classes. Doppler radar and satellite information provide advance data on the direction and amount of rainfall. These details should be quickly studied and decided upon by the city disaster officials.

However, despite our best efforts, I do not believe that any amount of disaster preparedness can resolve what is a basic environmental reality. No novel and massive infrastructure intervention can provide a solution to the recurring problem of flooding and gridlock. Just like the hopeless case that is Metro Manila, we should slowly come to terms that Cagayan de Oro has also exceeded its carrying capacity for people, vehicles, and water, a fact that is already indicated in the regular traffic jams but which is all the more exposed during extreme weather events such as this.

It takes a natural disaster to expose a social disaster. We are a city bursting at the seams with too much vehicles and people that unbridled and anarchic economic activity brings. The stalled vehicles in fetid floodwaters are evidences of this. The lessons of this new calamity must be studied and heeded before the next deluge that is sure to come.